Look! Up in the Sky — It’s Not a Bird, but it is a Plane Monitoring Pipelines

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As a rookie analyst for the natural gas transmission firm El Paso Corp., Jeff Farrells got his first real eye-opener in the pipeline inspection business when he boarded a tiny, single-engine Cessna 182 propeller plane in Colorado Springs.

It was the mid-1980s and he was off on his first mission to inspect the company’s extensive network of pipelines. The gravity of the challenge hit him as soon as he looked to the back of the plane and saw the generous stash of sleeping bags, food, warm jackets, clothing and equipment for starting a fire for what was not supposed to be an overnight mission.

Remembering back, Farrells says, “They were trying to anticipate all the problems they could have.”

Such is the life of those who fly to the middle of nowhere to inspect critically-important transmission infrastructure that most people don’t even realize exists. Analysts, inspectors and other safety personnel in the United States must tend to a network of oil and gas pipelines that, all together, adds up to 2.6 million miles, a distance that equals a little over five round-trips to the moon.

“The patrol pilots are a unique breed of people,” says Farrells, now the executive director of the Pipeline Association for Public Awareness, a group that works with excavators, emergency responders, and public officials to make sure our nation’s remarkably safe network of pipelines stays that way.

Farrells recalls that the pilots were always hospitable to their guest, teaching him what they could about flying the planes and only occasionally subjecting him to surprise gut-tumbling maneuvers.

“It’s not the most glamorous occupation,” Farrells says, recalling the danger. “Pilots have to be willing to fly single engine planes about 1,000 ft off the ground, in the mountains. They have to be pretty good pilots.”

pipeline-plane-closeEye in the Sky

The business of aerial oil and gas pipeline monitoring is remarkable for the great lengths that industry personnel have to go to in order to get the job done. The first and ultimate goal of aerial surveillance is to provide a simple visual inspection, just like the typical walk-around before driving away in a rented car. They just have to go out in the field (way, way out in the field) and use helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and sometimes drones to make it happen.

Aside from the distance and remote landscape, pipelines are also difficult to inspect from the air because they are almost always underground – placed there to prevent problems with corrosion and temperature-inspired expansion and contraction. So, as an inspector, how do you monitor the health of a pipe system that you largely cannot see? You’re looking for two telltale signs of problems, Farrells says: Leaks, which can usually be spotted by the patches of dead vegetation they leave behind, or any other disturbance of the ground near the pipe.

Sometimes, the source of those disturbances are human. Nearby construction can often be an issue, with home owners, for example, excavating septic tanks too close to the pipeline. (As they say, call before you dig.) Someone else might be unknowingly building a shed in the pipeline’s right-of-way, which could hinder access if some portion of the pipe needed to be dug up or otherwise maintained.

But the trouble could also come from Mother Nature. Rainstorms and floods can wash out hillsides, exposing sections of pipeline not designed to be above-ground. There’s even a possibility that the eyes in the sky will notice intentional, human-caused damage to the pipes. Farrells says it is not unheard of for people to try to steal product directly from the pipeline. Thieves have been known to break in and siphon off just enough fuel for their own use, or perhaps a tiny bit more for sale in a black market retail operation. If they take just a little, it’s possible that the pipeline’s pressure sensors won’t detect it. But between aerial surveillance, sensors, and tiny surveillance robots run through the actual pipes, illegal taps are usually discovered.

A thick body of complex federal regulation spells out exactly how often pipelines must be inspected. For gas lines, it’s four times per year, but for liquids deemed more hazardous, it’s up to 26 times per year. Regulations vary depending on whether the pipelines are crossing open fields or public rights of way.

New technology, meanwhile, is helping to improve surveillance capabilities, as inspectors can now deploy an array of sensors to help. High-res cameras, for example, can take in a larger and less distracted panorama, which provides a record that can be referenced later. Other sensory equipment can even detect invisible methane leaks. To further enhance the cool factor, laser technology is also being utilized in the field.

New Aircraft for an Old Game

While some inspectors are looking to drone innovation to keep “eyes in the skies,” their use still remains extremely limited for pipeline surveillance due to flight regulations, especially those dealing with how close they need to be to their on-the-ground operators. As a result, piloted aircraft innovation remains key to an industry that is facing mounting pressure from safety regulators and the growing size of its infrastructure.

Enter in the Seeker, a specially designed two-seater aircraft that can fly almost anywhere, anytime.

Four hundred miles to the south of Colorado Springs, the farming and ranching town of Los Lunas, New Mexico straddles the Rio Grande. The town is home to some 15,000 people and one small dirt airstrip where, on a perfect day in the summer of 2006, Tommy Dunn first boarded the Seeker. The aircraft is a fixed-wing, but with its oversized, wrap-around front window, it resembles the head of a housefly under a microscope.

Dunn, the Senior Vice President for Business Development and Marketing at CSI Aviation (Seeker Aircraft’s parent company), took the plane for a spin, flying south along the river and nearby desert mesas for a couple of hours before returning to the airstrip.

“It was an incredible experience. The view from this aircraft is truly unique,” he says. “You do not get this visibility in any other fixed wing.”

Back in 2006, the Seeker was an Australian company. Today, it is owned by the New Mexico-based CSI Aviation, which recently shepherded the plane through some key regulatory hurdles and is now preparing it for manufacturing at Erickson in southern Oregon. Now, Dunn is determined to make the Seeker the gold standard in pipeline monitoring.

“The Seeker is specifically built for surveillance,” he says. “It’s extremely rugged, capable of operating in austere conditions, and has a long endurance flight time.” The aircraft had no difficulty in taking off and landing at the tiny dirt strip in Los Lunas, he added.

Dunn has the disarming habit of casually comparing his ultra-light plane to the Blackhawk helicopters he once flew in Iraq, Jordan and Africa while in the New Mexico Army National Guard. He also lovingly refers to the plane as “this bird,” in what he chalks up to a linguistic holdover from his military service.

And he’s serious about the aircraft’s selling points. The propeller is mounted in the back and pushes the plane forward, rather than pulling it from the front, to keep the field of vision clear. On the nose, there’s a small patch of the plane’s skin that can be removed to easily install sensor equipment. It can take off and land in all manner of gravel, grass, and dirt. It cruises at about 100-110 knots, but can comfortably be taken down to 55 for a closer, slower look.

When it comes to operating costs, according to Dunn, the advantages get even clearer. Where helicopters, with their vast collection of moving parts, can cost $1,000 per hour to keep in the air, the Seeker operates below $80 an hour.

“Companies and government agencies are looking for the most cost effective way to place their surveillance systems in the air” Dunn says. “The Seeker is the only purpose built aircraft specifically designed for surveillance requirements. It’s a very basic versatile and dependable aircraft. The Seeker can safely fly slow and low.”

So while drones will soon revolutionize industries like real estate, farming and insurance, don’t look for them to take over pipeline surveillance anytime soon, says Dunn. “Their range is limited, as is their ability to carry sensors. And it remains critically important to have knowledgeable inspectors in the air – especially far afield.”

Dunn says that he believes The Seeker could play a critical role in pipeline safety as population growth and expanding pipeline systems continue to converge on one another. “That’s why we are working to expand into that market,” he says. “Some things are a perfect fit, and I believe this is one of them.”

Peter Rice is a freelance writer based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is interested in issues in the West such as oil and gas and water. For more information about the Seeker, go to seekeraircraft.com. Visit the Pipeline Association for Public Awareness at pipelineawareness.org.

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